One week in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has been on my travel list for a while. Ever since I learnt that its waters are swimming with whales, this little teardrop shaped island often popped up in my travel thoughts. Add to this all the rave reviews by friends about how lovely, how friendly and how clean it is and some measure of the Sri Lankan travel shows on Travel and Living channel. As a novice traveller, the promise of a “cheaper” destination held attractions hundredfold.
But even all the rave reviews notwithstanding, I wasn’t expected to be blown away like I was. It’s a neighbouring country - how different could it be from India? I’m from Kerala and I have seen beaches aplenty and even the food wasn’t drastically different.. or so I thought. But my word, Sri Lanka is the utopian fate that we narrowly and tragically missed. Sri Lanka is the sea salt in our wound, when we realise just how good we could have had it. It’s a smaller, poorer country. And yet its roads are wider. It’s clean. The men don’t stare. The people are friendly and kind. The vibe is funkier. The vehicel horns are quieter. The food is better and cheaper. The women are chilled out. And the sea is definitely bluer on this side of the strait. All our lives, we’ve associated Sri Lanka with Ravana, the asura king - demonised for kidnapping Sita and breaking up the Rama household. So it takes a little swallowing of humble pie, to see that the land of the asuras beat the land of the devas, on account of beauty, cleanliness, hospitality and godliness, in a heartbeat.
But let me start at the beginning. When our friends decided that we’d spend New Year’s in Sri Lanka, I was a bit apprehensive because I’d heard stories of Sri Lanka being deceptively expensive. At first look, it appears cheap with the reduced currency (for once!) and the affordable flight rates. But the expenses can sneak up on you. But what’s expensive is often offset by many an affordable thing, that sort of bring about a balance. We’d planned on taking a self-drive car. But upon landing in Colombo, we found out in the wee hours, clouded by sleep deprivation that it was easier said than done. I’m not sure if it were because we were a big group, but a self drive car was turning out to far more expensive than a chauffeured vehicle. We were offered a self drive vehicle for 550 USD along with a deposit of 400 USD. While a chauffeured vehicle would have been somewhere around 600 USD, plus accommodation and food charges for the driver. I'd suggest you figure your car situation in advance before you get on that plane to Colombo. Like we intended to. But restrictions on making money transfers from India to Sri Lanka kept us from working out our commuting situation in advance.
As for mobile services, we went to the Airtel kiosk and found that they were offering laughable services. Ridiculously high priced and very few offerings. The Mobitel service had some great deals for a very reasonable price. We were going to be in Sri Lanka for less than a week, so it made all the more sense. After hanging around the car rental kiosks for about an hour and half, one of the rental executives walked us out of the airport and found us a driver. It didn’t come with a paper trail so we were a bit concerned. But we worked out a good deal for six days and we decided to take the risk. Which turned out to be a winner of a gamble. Our driver Neelantha knew all the roads and knew some nice places. But I’m not sure how much of a smart idea going by gambles are - because there are people waiting to take advantage in any part of the world.
The roads from Colombo to the Southern Province are just great. The highways are well planned and considering most of slept soundly throughout the journey speaks for how good the roads were. Our Airbnb was located in Ahangama. One word of caution about Srilanka and Airbnb, don’t book until you’ve written to the host and the host writes back and confirms the availability of the room. Our bookings were cancelled no less than four times during the course of planning the trip. But everything happens for a reason, and man, am I glad the other bookings got cancelled, for the house we eventually booked was HEAVEN. This is not some holiday hyperbole I’m dishing out to you. The place was literally something that made you wonder if you had been on some super good behaviour that the universe was rewarding you for. This traditional Srilankan home was converted and refurbished to modern standards - giving us pool and traditional architecture, spacious rooms and luxurious showers, open backyard and koi ponds. And the caretaker, Charit - he’s the kind of person who takes the care in his designation very, very seriously. We lacked for nothing with him around.
Now, a little about Ahangama. Ahangama is a great place to set base while in the Southern Province. Why?
1. It’s right in the middle of Galle and Mirissa. Why is that so important? Whalewatching in Mirissa begins at 6.00 in the morning. And Galle is great for food and shopping and soaking in the colonial chapter of Sri Lanka’s past. So if you set up base too far north or too down south, it means a lot of commuting - which can be rather inconvenient whether or not you have a car.
2. Ahangama has a nice village vibe to it, and yet close to all the tourist attractions.
3. Ahangama is one of the best beaches for surfing and to learn surfing
4. The rents are relatively low
5. You can catch a lot of stilt fishermen - though that is largely a tourist trap. More on that later.
We hadn’t given Charit notice to provide breakfast that morning. A big mistake, because Ahangama isn’t exactly the most touristy place - so food options are a little scarce. We went way after breakfast time to a surfer cafe at Welingama. And lets just say other than the fabulous scenery, there wasn’t much else to feast on. The lady who runs the place was sweet enough to try and rustle something up for us. But there’s just so much you can get in the limbo land between breakfast and lunch. We gorged on as many sausages and omelettes she could provide and headed back to the Airbnb.
Later that day after catching up on our sleep and a quick dip in the pool, we headed to Galle - about 25 kilometres from Ahangama. On the way we saw gleaming white pagodas or stupas, railway stations that looked so clean and cute it could have been a Wes Andersen set, spick and span fish markets (I've never seen a fish market that didn't make me gag) and spick and span vegetable markets, with people being civilised to one another. Reminding us again of the utopian fate we had missed.
Galle is gorgeous at dusk. All the boutiques come alive in gold and elfin hues. What’s ordinary tungsten in other parts of the world, is nostalgic gold in these parts. There are many, many food options here, suiting all budgets. There are many old time places with colonial heritage that have been transformed into boutique hotels and restaurants.
Galle is filled with vintage vehicles. NO scratch that. Sri Lanka is filled with vintage vehicles and the motor heads in the gig were spinning 360 degrees checking them out. But back to food. This being our first day we wanted to eat cheap and local. So we went looking for a place that came highly recommended by Tripadvisor. The Lucky Fort Restaurant is a homey place - quite literally. You walk in and suddenly you’re their living room. But the food is delicious. We’d heard that Sri Lanka was one of those places that wasn’t quite vegetarian friendly. We found this to be quite untrue. But then again, we chose to eat Sri Lankan food. For less than 1000 LKR we had a meal that three of us could eat and then pass out into a happy food coma. One meal comes with ten curries, including one non-veg curry. The food is simple and satisfying. Galle has a lot of interesting corners to mosey through. Lots of gem stone shops, tea stores, art and design stores including the really popular Barefoot and Odel store. Galle is extremely touristy. But it doesn’t really get to you - probably because it has a very distinct and interesting vibe. But we’d had a rather long day, so we decided to call it a night. And we had an early start next morning - we were going whale watching.
Mirissa is about 17 km from Ahangama. We woke up at some ridiculous hour and the boys were very grumpy. And at about 6 we were hanging out at the meeting point in Mirissa, where people were transferred into tuk-tuks and then taken to a dock. We got into a tuk-tuk and made a couple of stops which made no sense - because we didn’t have to make sense of them. Charit was doing the making sense of, for us. I would advise you to sort things with a whale watching company beforehand. In case you need to be doing a lot of making sense if things on your own. As reviews go Raja and the Whales are reputed to be the best. But we went with Marriot Cruise (Ph +94 77 246 7111) and we had no complaints - the boat is clean, the people are nice and they serve delicious food. No sooner were we on the boat, we were served black coffee. I'd carried Avomin with me, and before the boat left the dock, downed a pill. I’d heard enough horror stories of seasickness and I was taking no risks.
It turned out to be a good thing - half hour into the cruise, some of our friends were spilling their guts out. The Indian Ocean has a tremendous swell and even in the best months can toss you around quite a bit. Two hours into the sea and we encounter a pod of spinner dolphins. They hung out with our boat for a bit and we lost our cool with excitement. They are so much cuter in real life! But as enchanting as dolphins may be, whales are a true blue, spellbinding deal. THEY ARE SO BIG! The sighting of a blowhole and how your heart races along with the boat, hoping to get close before the telltale tail flips, signalling the end of your rendezvous. How your eyes rove for a dorsal fin to break the jagged blue water or a distant patch of spray, a blurry bit of horizon courtesy a blowhole. How you are tossed around and you clutch on to the railings for dear life, hoping and praying your phone/camera won’t end up at the bottom of the Indian Ocean - taking your precious pictures with it. Here I'd like to advise you to sit as far away from your fidgety friends who are overconfident about their sea legs. Their sea legs are shit and you will know what it's like to have a sack of coconuts fall on you rather unceremoniously.
Being at sea makes you so aware of how small you are and just how insignificant. It makes you aware how far we’ve come as a species to conquer these indiscriminate distances and become the world we are now. We feel the whole weight of the privilege of being human. And how we’re being so reckless. We feel all this and more - but only if we’ve been smart enough to take our anti-vomit meds. If we don’t, we only feel the full power of last night’s dinner taking the wrong exit. So please, please take the anti-vomit meds. If you can stomach it, the tour operators provide sandwiches, biscuits, snacks, water, delicious chocolate cake (or so I’ve heard. I was not going to trigger any pukey sensations), fruit. Whale watching costs around 6000 LKR. Which is quite cheap for a life changing or at least life sharpening experience. We saw humpback whales, blue whales (I think a cow and her baby), spinner dolphins, Risso's dolphins (but to my utter disappointment, no orcas were sighted that day). You can't help but feel really lucky that that these beautiful animals chose to surface somewhere around you, from the miles and miles of distant blue surrounding you.
The cruise wrapped up by 11.30 am and our stomachs must have noticed that we were on terra firma and turned back into solid state with solid needs. We were ravenous. TripAdvisor directed us to Chef Akila’s Kitchen. It’s a tiny place, up a really really narrow road, perched on the top of high cliff, that drops off into the sea quite without warning, and with the most magnificent of views. We were underwhelmed by the size of the place - it was a small family home and seated 12 people at most and the menu wasn't extensive. But all our misgivings leapt to their deaths on that high cliff when the food did come. It was sublime. Everything we ordered had fresh flavours and were rich and well prepared. Chef Akila, a man who is often praised but still not quite used to it, grinned from ear to ear when we melted into rhapsodies of praise for his food. We went back to our Airbnb and siesta-ed out our eventful morning. We’d hardly been in Sri Lanka 24 hours, but it began to feel like we’d known her all our lives. That’s how welcoming and familiar and hospitable she is.
In the evening we headed to Galle again. As unimaginative as that sounded, we wanted to try a restaurant that caught our fancy the previous day. We were yet to try the famous appams or the hoppers as they are called. As a Malayalee, this hardly held anything exotic for me - but I was so mistaken. After wandering around the Galle Fort, which we didn’t get to do the previous day, we went to Hoppa. The guy who runs the place looked a little worried at our 7-member gang and promised to seat us, warning us that it would take a while. We thought he was unnecessarily putting up his price. Until we walked in. The place was little more than a hole-in-the-wall, but with absolute finesse. We were seated near the kitchen and we watched the main chef whip out one hopper after the next, so much that we were half dizzy with her movements. As for the food, it was a winner again. Sri Lanka was out to please us that day and boy, did she do a fine job. When in Galle, try it all. The shops, the food, the gelato, the spa places, the winding streets. Just follow your nose and give into its whimsies.
We’d initially thought we’d go on a safari on our third day. But we’d had enough of waking up early for one holiday. And if we were to get to Yala early enough for the safaris, we’d have had to set out at maybe 2 in the morning. And nobody had the inclination for something like that. To make up for it, Ahangama woke us up to the cry of a peacock. At the bottom of the house’s garden was a huge gate that opened to a wide field. And right at the end of the field was literally an ostentation of peahens and a very Rhett Butler of a peacock, strutting his stuff. Exotic, much? Charit arranged for breakfast - I think it was prepared by his mother-in-law or grandmother. Along with fresh hoppers and fish curry, he’d got a deep dish full of Kiri kos - a jackfruit seed curry, made creamy and luxurious in coconut milk - just because I asked him where I could find it. That’s the kind of breakfast that fills your soul first and then your stomach. Since we're talking about food, here are some things you must try in Sri Lanka -
1. Hoppers (duh)
3. Pol Sambol - a spicy, dry coconut accompaniment to rice. It's deceptively delicious
4. Seeni Sembol - sweet, caramelised onions to end all caramelised onions. It sings in your mouth.
5. Kiri Kos. You need to taste it to believe it.
6. Fish Rolls. These hunger beaters are so cheap and so efficient that they might be your best friend if you are feeling peckish and stingy at the same time. You'll find them in triangle packets as well - stuffed with veggies or chicken.
7. Dhal. Or parippu curry. Sri Lankan cuisine puts coconut in this dish and elevates this salt of the earth dish to 'fit for gods' status.
8. Coconut or pol roti. You'll not know when to stop.
9. Arrack. With Elephant Ginger Beer. Oh yum. Take a bottle with you from the duty free as you fly out. It really helps when you miss Sri Lanka too much.
10. Kiribath. Rice and coconut milk cakes. Sometimes served with Fish Ambul Thiyyal (mostly tuna-based). It's weird eating fish for breakfast. But you get used to it fast.
11. Kothuparota. Though we didn't quite get to it eat it this time despite trying to. But it's supposed to be great and all
12. Seafood. Just dive into it. DOn't ask questions.
13. Polos. Is Sri Lankan for YUM alert. Polos is young jackfruit - coy vegetarian ingredients with the voluptuous textures of mutton. We had polos cutlets and Gata Polos (a traditional curry) at Upali (Colombo) that had us dreaming about it for days.
14. Gotukala Sambol. A small insignificant-looking green salad with incredible flavours.
After breakfast we headed to Hikkaduwa for snorkelling (2500 LKR). Charit, once again, hit us up with some of his friends at Poseidon Diving Station - a PADI five star centre. Hikkaduwa is the place Sri Lanka comes to be chilled out. It has a groovy vibe with strains of touristiness. But what brings people to Hikkaduwa for snorkelling and scuba diving are its reefs. We were standing in less than knee deep water and mocking a kid who was snorkelling next to us, thinking how much jollies was he getting from checking out sand. But no sooner had we worn our snorkels and stuck our face in the water, we were amazed to find cute yellow fishies and blue fishies hanging out, as if it were school lunch break. We owe that kid an apology.
My instructor - London (nice name, huh?) held my hand and took me to deeper waters. If you can call my death grip "held". I’m not much of a swimmer - my levels are at a definite non-existent. And I panicked when I saw rocks beneath. I almost drowned the poor boy in my state of panic. And that convinced him that I was panicking for real. If I thought I had anxiety in every day life, the sea had a whole new world of anxiety to open to me. To not know swimming and to let go, even though a rational (knows swimming) person would tell you there’s no way you’ll drown because you have life jackets, the copious amount of sea water entering your system through your mouth and sometimes finding its way to your lungs, can make you believe otherwise. But for those who could swim, Hikkaduwa turned out to be a jewel-box of firsts. They spotted squid, turtles and lots and lots of brightly coloured fish. I found a little bit of purpose. In life.
We walked to a bar by the beach called Mama’s. The place was big and looked quite popular. But I couldn’t say much for the food. The drinks were nice.It was our most expensive meal but far from the best. After lunch we stopped at a store where we saw a relic of a man working with chisels and wood, creating the prettiest wooden handicrafts. We put our bargaining skills to work, found out just how rubbish we were at bargaining and bought some pieces all the same. Please work on your swimming and bargaining skills before coming to Sri Lanka.
Neelantha suggested a river safari and though it did not sound appealing at all, we were like what the heck. Feeling glamorously irresponsible and touristy, we spilled out of the car at the Captain’s Boathouse. And we landed at some quaint, madcap ragtag maritime museum. We spent a little time examining these relics from the past that included the menu of the Titanic. The Captain's Boathouse was indeed interesting. And then a Singhalese personification of a cleaned up Captain Haddock joined us and briefed us on what we might see during the safari. We purchased tickets (2000 LKR) and got into the boat for what is knows as the Madu River Cruise. And it was unbelievable how magical it was. The evening light was being sieved by some careless goldsmith in the sky. It was fine and powdery and gold. The mangrove-lined banks were made of emerald and the water was green silk. There were countless boats on the river. But each one carried mesmerised cargo - too stricken to be noisy. If you hear of a river safari in Sri Lanka, don’t discount it as touristy or whatever.
It’s beautiful. On the way, you stop at an island called Cinnamon Island, where you can see how cinnamon is harvested. They offer you a whole lot of cinnamon products. Sometimes if you’re lucky, you’ll spot a croc or two. You’ll see old mansions that creak with charming ruin. You’ll stop at drive-in (or float-in) tender coconut stalls where you’ll drink sweet elixir. And at the end, you’ll stop for a fish spa, where big pink fish called musambi fish, will come and nibble on your toes with their startlingly big teeth, making you squeal and giggle and pull your feet right out of the water and then gingerly venture your feet once again into the water, and then repeat the exercise, till its time to leave. Every time falling more and more in love with this sweet, winsome country. We had dinner at Unawatuna and we were sorry we didn't have time to befriend this hippy-happy alcove of Sri Lanka. Unawatuna has the best beaches for swimming, so the crowd is young and laid back. We had a simple dinner at Mettha's Home Cooked meals. They are so serious about their organic title that they serve no popadoms. We went back to our Airbnb and lounged for a while in the pool, which was deliciously warm. We saw a nocturne peacock fly huffily from our roof, disgusted at us taking over his roosting space. While stone-still frogs glared at us from shadowy corners, plotting total annihilation with every contained breath. It had indeed been a good day. We went to bed with heavy hearts because we were leaving Ahangama the next day and would head for Kandy.
The following morning, Amrutha, Likith and I woke up early hoping to catch some stilt fishermen in action. On the way, a tuk-tuk driver chatted us up and quickly lost interest when he realised we weren’t looking for a ride. The tuk-tuk drivers in Sri Lanka seem to be great reggae lovers. Everywhere there was Bob Marley being quoted and things like “King of the reggae world” plastered on the backs of the vehicle. As we walked along the beach, a random passerby pointed up north and announced that there were fishermen. I guess people assume that if you’re up and about so early and without a surf board, you probably are looking for fishermen. We found them, alright. We also found out why we never saw them in action all this while. Stilt Fishing has become a full fledged tourist trap. They will pose for you and let you take photos all for a price - that starts at 2000 LKR. We bargained and brought it down to a 1000 rupees.
We took some pictures. Walked on the road, took pictures of Sri Lanka's biscuit tin buses, followed random paths to get to a beach. As much as the sea is right under your nose, finding a beach is easier said than done. We finally took one path and hit pay dirt. It was a secluded beach with stilts all around. A lone boy cast a line from the beach. A man offered to bring fishermen, we declined and he insisted that we could help a poor fisherman. But I’d had enough of touristy stuff. So we settled for just taking our pictures. On our way back, we bought a huge terracotta basin filled with yogurt - they care called Buffalo Curd. Most packaged yogurt in Sri Lanka come pre-sweetened. So pick one of these for some yogurt that lives up to everything yogurt ought to be. After breakfast (more hoppers, a different fish curry, Pol sambol and more Kiri kos) we thanked Charit for taking such good care of us and left for Kandy. We stopped at a hatchery at Hikkaduwa and hung out with some cool turtles. (500 LKR) They are the little lambs of the ocean. With their zen grandmom faces and que-sera-sera attitude.
Just before Kandy, we made a stop at Pinnawala. Pinnawala is known for its elephant orphanages. We went to the Millennium Elephant Foundation, where they rehabilitate around 7 to 8 elephants. The place offers different packages that lets you interact with the elephants at a different level. We chose the 800 LKR package that included a short ride and washing the elephant in the river. The elephants are of varying temperament and it was interesting to see how each one responded to what. And if you love elephants, Raja the elephant will totally steal your heart. He has the ways of an old friend and comes to you expecting a pat or better still, some fruit.
Kandy was such a disappointment that I hardly want to write about it. But I’ll say this, when in Kandy, eat fancy. Don’t go for the local small joints. They are of questionable hygiene and the food isn’t good. We went to the Mlesna tea room and the Cafe Walk cafe for two breakfasts and they were our most favourite experiences in Kandy. The tea was good, the food was delicious and the service was great. The other thing I liked in Kandy was the cultural show we went to (1000 LKR). I found it supremely entertaining. We were at Kandy on the first of January and it was a full-moon day. Poya is a holiday in Sri Lanka and that means everywhere is just crowded. This discounted the Temple of the Tooth and the Kandy Palace and the Botanical Gardens. A day in Kandy turned out to be too long.
Early next morning we left for Colombo. On the way, we stopped at the Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue. It's located at the top of the hill and is one of the largest Buddha statues in Sri Lanka. Entry is about 250 LKR and make sure you have covered your knees and shoulders. The views are beautiful from here. We stopped for breakfast at Cafe Walk and left Kandy with a sweeter after taste than what it began with. And then we headed to Colombo and no sooner had we reached Colombo we began kicking ourselves for just treating this as an Airport place. For starters, the place Upali where we had lunch gave us a lasting memory of how food can make a poet of your stomach. Wandering around the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct made us wish we had more time to explore the restaurants here. The Galle Face Hotel made us wish we had made its acquaintance by daytime. Colombo is that cool chick you didn’t talk to until the last day of school. That night as I polished off the last of my crab dosa at Chutneys at the Cinnamon Hotel, I realised that this could have been love after all.